A few days or so ago I wrote a post about Southern Tier Brewing Company's Imperial Pumking Ale. And in that post, in case you haven't read it and don't feel like it right now although you should, I raved and waxed rhapsodic about this marvelous Pumpkin Ale – brewed – as it says right there on the label – "With Real Pumpkins!"
And that was about it.
Now this past weekend, my husband played guitar at the wedding of a friend of his. He played for free, he and I were guests as well, and we had a lovely time. And then when we were leaving, the groom gave Bill, in thanks, a case of assorted beers. And not just your big-name, small-flavor beers. A lot of interesting imports and domestic microbrews and, we discovered – a 6-pack of assorted pumpkin ales.
(I set the empty bottles out on the living room floor to take this picture, just a few minutes ago, and Softie would not leave things alone. So while she was not intended to be a part of this post in any way, she has insinuated herself into it nonetheless. Probably because I featured her brother in this morning's cat picture.) (P.S. The bottles are in no particular order in the photo.)
Last night we thought we'd try two of them, so Bill chilled them down while I started dinner, and while waiting for the pasta water to boil, we sampled the first one.
Smuttynose Brewing Company's Pumpkin Ale. First on on the left in the photo above. And it was very good. In very tiny green print on the label, right below the simple "Pumpkin Ale" font, it says "ale brewed with pumpkin puree & spices." Very flavorful, though not as "pumpkiny" as Southern Tier's version, and more hoppy. But still – a very good pumpkin ale. And as my husband pointed out, you can buy it by the 6-pack, but Southern Tier's is only available as a 22-oz bottle, and cost-effectiveness-wise, maybe Smutty is the better deal. Plus Bill loves very hoppy beers. Personally, if given the choice between the two, I'd buy the Southern Tier and savor it slowly. Because it tastes SO pumpkiny. But that's me.
Anyway, after that first bottle, we were rather eager to sample the other bottle. The pasta was cooking, and I was playing Free Cell on the computer while I waited for it to finish up. (I am addicted to Free Cell. There, I admitted it.)
Next up was Saranac's Pumpkin Ale. Um. Saranac? To paraphrase that loud little woman from the burger commercials years ago, WHERE'S THE PUMPKIN?? Really. I didn't taste anything remotely pumpkinish in this beer. There was a bit of spice to it, but the predominant flavor, the logic of which I'm still trying to figure out, was….vanilla. Vanilla? Yes. It actually tasted a lot like a Cream Soda. Not at all like a Pumpkin Ale, or any other sort of ale, actually. Except, I guess, a Vanilla ale. Which…well…you don't see many of THEM in your local pubs, do you? I thought not. And back to the flavor…well, here's the think I don't get. If you're going to call it "Pumpkin Ale," then (everybody?) shouldn't there be some kind of pumpkin flavor in it? Just a thought.
Anyway, here's what it says on the label below the smiley/scary jack-o-lantern face: "Ale brewed with pumpkin, spices and other natural flavors." Brewed with pumpkin? I'm guessing they mean there were pumpkins hanging out with their brew master and his crew, kind of watching the process and cheering the guys on or something. But IN the ale? I remain skeptical. And on the little label around the neck of the bottle it says this:
In celebration of the fall harvest, here's an autumn favorite that's as enjoyable as pumpkin pie. This hearty ale is brewed with cinnamon, allspice, cloves and vanilla. Look for a full body and amber color. We're sure you'll enjoy this special brew!
Hm. Well, sorry, Saranac folk…I don't know how your mothers and grandmothers made their pumpkin pies, but where I'm from? We use pumpkins. Or maybe squash, which is fine, because a pumpkin IS a squash. What a pumpkin is not is a VANILLA BEAN. And to tell you the truth, I don't even know if it was full bodied – I didn't drink more than a mouthful or two. Neither did Bill. I know – amazing but true. We poured it down the drain.
And that disappointing experience got us wondering how the OTHER 4 pumpkin ales were. I said we should have set up a blind tasting, with paper bags around the bottles, and rated them all. And our eyes met, Bill's and mine, and we had a little "hey!" moment, and decided to try the rest of the beers and take notes.
So, next up? Shipyard Brewing Company's Pumpkinhead. The bottle features a clever little headless-horseman image with a rather evil looking jack-0-lantern head. And I figure the jack-o-lanter looks that way because he really would prefer NOT to be associated with this misnamed beverage. Before I go on with my critique, let's see what the label promises…ah, here it is: "Beer with natural flavor added." Well, that certainly leaves things open-ended, doesn't it? You could flavor it with mint and the label wouldn't be lying. I'm not sure what the Shipyard people used, but the resulting concoction tasted like really awful cold mulled cider. As in, you bought some dry blend of "apple cider mulling spices" at a touristy gift shop somewhere, forgot about it on the shelf for two years, found it when you were looking for the turmeric, and, since it was apple-picking season, you thought, hey! I'll try it! And you did, and it was horrible, and you left the rest of it in the pot on the stove, untouched, and went to bed vowing never to make it again, and why would people ever want to mull anything if it tastes so vile? And the next morning, just to be sure, you take a little sip of the cold, mulled cider, just in case your taste buds had been thrown off by the blue cheese salad dressing you'd loaded up on the night before. And the little sip of cold mulled cider tastes worse than anything you can think of right then, so you spit it out and dump the rest down the sink. THAT is what this beer tasted like. And we poured it down the sink. And Bill, in his scribbly, scratchy writing, clearly wrote "AWFUL" and underlined it twice on our little note pad.
Fourth from the 6-pack was Post Road Pumpkin Ale. The label clearly says "ale brewed with pumpkin and spices." And on the little neck label they've got a glimpse into the history of pumpkin ales:
In the 18th Century, colonial Americans brewed wonderful and interesting ales by using local ingredients. (Because there was no online shopping, as Al Gore hadn't yet invented the internet.) Barley was the principal ingredient but pumpkins were also used. Pumpkins were favored by brewers for their rich spicy flavors, which melded perfectly with the malted barley. Post Road brings you a delicious rendition of this traditional American classic.
Now let me check our notes. "Some roasty pumpkin spzding (can't read Bill's writing), strange after-flavor (antiseptic flavor)." Ah, yes. I remember this one. It fooled us at first with a bit of roasted "real pumpkin!" flavor, but that quickly vanished and was replaced by a totally unnatural, non-food-related flavor and yucky mouth feel that made me want to scrape my tongue with several spools of dental floss. I guess they didn't have space to include this on the label, but apparently the pumpkins used by those inventive colonists had medicinal qualities and the resulting beer brewed by these special squashes could also be used to clean wounds, sterilize instruments, and clean cows' teats to prevent mastitis. Quite useful stuff for the colonists, I imagine, but not all that appealing to us. Down the sink it went.
Next up – Sea Dog Pumpkin Ale. The label reads "Ale with Pumpkin Flavor Added." Well, hey, they're honest. It's Pumpkin Flavor. And it's not even necessarily brewed with the pumpkin flavor, in fact it's probably not – I bet the flavor is added at the end of the whole process, shortly before bottling. And you'll notice they don't include the word "natural" in that sentence. Because I'm guessing it's not natural pumpkin flavor, either. I'm guessing in their pantry, the Sea Dog people have a big ol' brown bottle of some store brand Artificial Pumpkin Flavoring that they use every year for their seasonal ale. But you know, at least they're not pretending something else. It's just "yeah, whatever, pumpkin ale, with some kind of pumpkin stuff in it. and here's your nachos with that." So I'm not AS irritated about this one. The expectations weren't set too high. Anyway, it tasted, as you might think, like ale with artificial pumpkin flavor in it. And that was it. It was sort of like…oh…an orange soda. Yeah, it's orange, and yeah, it…well, it kind of tastes like orange, I guess…but you know there's not a drop of genuine citrus anywhere amid those bubbles.
And finally, Blue Moon's Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale. Now, I love Blue Moon Belgian White. Yum, yum, yum. With pizza. Very good. So I expected more, I guess, from this brewery. Their Harvest Moon is very nice, as a beer, but I think they should have left "pumpkin" off the label, because I didn't notice any inside the bottle. It's got a nice spicy flavor – not overly spiced, just…nice. And that's it. It's…nice. But that's about it. The label says "This amber-colored, naturally flavored ale is brewed only in the autumn & combines the flavor of vine-ripened pumpkin & spices with traditional crystal malt." Um…okay Blue Moon. Aren't most pumpkins vine-ripened? That's where pumpkins grow, isn't it? On vines? But I am being picky.
I guess this whole experience has me wondering why someone would call something a pumpkin ale if it doesn't taste like pumpkin anything? Just to get people to buy it? Because it's October and it's The Season of Pumpkins and hey, let's try this pumpkin ale! Look, it's got a real cartoon picture of an angry pumpkin right on the label, so IT HAS TO BE GOOD!"
I guess, for us, Southern Tier Brewing Company has set the bar WAY too high. Sorry other beer brewers. But you can always try again next year.
Oh, and in case you wondered how we finally rated everything, here's the list, SUPREMELY BEST to hideous:
First – Southern Tier Brewing Company's Imperial Pumking Ale. It's so high up on the list you need an extension ladder to look at the bottom of the bottle. It's that good.
Second – Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale. Very very good. More hoppy and less roasted-pumpkiny, but definitely still a PUMPKIN beer.
Now we skip a whole mess of rungs on our extension ladder and eventually wind up with the rest of them….
Third – Blue Moon. Not all that pumpkiny, but a very nice beer, and better, certainly, than any that follow it.
Fourth – Saranac – and I didn't even like this one, but it didn't taste vile. Didn't taste like BEER, either – this is the one that made me think of cream soda – but it wasn't WRONG.
Fifth – Sea Dog. Our honest little beer. Maybe it's artificially flavored, but it never pretended to be otherwise, and honesty has to count for something.
Sixth – Post Road. That's the colonial American beer used by doctors and veteranarians everywhere to chase away germs, and later by prohibitionists to make unsuspecting beer novices believe that ALL beer tastes this bad!!!
Seventh – Shipyard. The fake apple cider you should have poured down the sink BEFORE you drank it.
And that concludes this little taste-testing adventure with Pumpkin Ales and Pretenders to the Bottle. I know there are others out there that we didn't include – it was just an impromptu comparison of the bottles we had in the house.